James Wood, a staff writer for The New Yorker and lecturer in literature at Harvard, describes the devices a novelist uses to convey a story to the reader. How Fiction Works (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24) covers a wide range in the genre, from the novels of Austen to those of Graham Greene. Reading Wood’s slim and erudite guide to literature caused me to plan a rereading of Flaubert, who “decisively established what most readers and writers think of as modern realistic narrative.” Wood cites passages from John Updike’s The Terrorist that significantly added to my understanding of the different ways the puppeteer was pulling the strings. Wood is a friendly, plain-speaking guide, even in areas where the layers of the creative process get dense. What do Austen, Roth, and David Foster Wallace have in common? The use of different registers, which is a literary way of saying the author uses diction specific to different characters, whether vernacular, pompous, or clichéd.
Jennet Conant writes a colorful chapter of Washington history in The Irregulars (Simon & Schuster, $27.95), her new biography of Roald Dahl. She focuses on Dahl’s wartime years here, spying for the British, who were anxious to draw America into their battle with Nazi Germany. As a spy, Dahl relayed to his home office gossip from the political and diplomatic scenes, as well as from the local cocktail circuit and even pillow talk with the prominent rich and beautiful ladies he bedded, including Clare Booth Luce. If he couldn’t collect enough rumors, he manufactured them. Despite Dahl’s sometimes shaky espionage operations, the intelligence network, officially known as British Security, succeeded in securing America’s support for the British war effort.
(This book cannot be returned.)
Emily Post (Random House, $30) began life in the world of Manhattan’s bluebloods, but after a painful, humiliating scandal due to her husband’s indiscretions, she inventively found new skills—including those of a novelist—to become self-supporting. Etiquette had always been a lively interest in America, as a nation of immigrants from class-hardened European societies anxiously sought guidelines for how to behave in a classless society. Books on manners were already plentiful by 1922 when Emily Post’s Etiquette appeared, but her book soon became a bestseller, and the name “Emily Post” attained the same brand recognition as Victrola phonographs and Kodak cameras. Laura Claridge’s new biography follows the doyenne of manners as she expanded her interests beyond social strictures to social justice, becoming a passionate advocate for immigrants and women.